A CurtainUp Review
Every Brilliant Thing
By Jacob Horn
This solo show, which arrives at the Barrow Street Theatre following a summer premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, features Jonny Donahoe as an unnamed man who recounts the significance of a list he has made throughout his life of "everything brilliant in the world." The list starts when he is seven years old, following his mother's first suicide attempt, and continues to grow, first for his mother's sake, then later his own. Through the story of the list we see his journey unfold and come to understand how depression has shaped his life.
Meanwhile, though depression is the primary topic at hand throughout, the way it is treated here is far from clinical. Often, depression is addressed as an unavoidable element of the human experience: "If you got all the way through life without ever being heart-crushingly depressed, you probably haven't been paying attention," Donahoe declares in the performance. And when addressing the more extreme form of depression that affected his mother, his language still roots in emotion rather than psychology—for example, his advice for anyone with suicidal thoughts is simply, "Don't do it."
Donahoe's performance, directed by George Perrin, is unapologetically earnest, and even while the material is not his own, he occupies the figure (I hesitate to use the word "character" without knowing the extent to which the play is rooted in its creator's biography) so naturally that you'll easily believe he has lived through every experience he recounts.
One of the most distinctive features of Every Brilliant Thing is the way it involves the audience. A number of audience members are enlisted to read items on the list throughout the performance, and several are also called upon to play small supporting roles. Audience participation can be dangerous territory into which to venture, but here it is so smartly employed that it manages (most of the time, at least) to avoid gimmickry and become a key part of the performance, which at best almost starts to feel like an informal conversation.
Perhaps part of the reason that audience involvement works here is because it helps to offset the fixity of a solo show: even if they don't participate to a great extent, these audience members still help to form a supporting cast that lends dynamism to the production. It also plays to Donahoe's strength of making people feel comfortable, as he guides them through their roles with a gentle hand. He's even able to (politely) poke fun when a member of this hastily assembled "cast" makes a misstep while still seeming fully supportive and kind, which furthers the air of casual familiarity between him and his viewers.
More likely to make you laugh than cry, Every Brilliant Thing might open itself up to criticism on the basis of not being serious enough, or not having enough substance to do right by its intense subject matter. But its approach shouldn't be mistaken for whitewashing over the hardship of mental illness.
Like the list central to the play's narrative arc, Every Brilliant Thing doesn't try to ignore the severity of depression. Rather, it takes a firm stance that in the face of hardship, that's when it's most important to celebrate what's brilliant in life.